Environment Canada Study Reveals Oilsands Tailings Ponds Emit Toxins to Atmosphere at Much Higher Levels than Reported

There are more than 176 square kilometres of tailings ponds holding waste from oilsands development in the area around Fort McMurray, Alberta. According to new research released from Environment Canada, those tailings ponds are emitting much higher levels of toxic and potentially cancer-causing contaminants into the air than previously reported.

As the Canadian Press reports, Environment Canada scientist Elisabeth Galarneau is the first to conduct field studies in the region and her research confirms that previous estimates of chemical release into the air have been massively underestimated.

We found that there actually does appear to be a net flow of these compounds going from water to air,” Galarneau told the Canadian Press. “It’s just a bit under five times higher from the ponds than what’s been reported.”

A previous study used modeling to estimate potential chemical release, but Galarneau’s study, published recently in the journal of Atmospheric Environment, relied on air samples and filters located in the study region.

Joint federal-provincial monitoring program called into question

Galarneau’s research was conducted under the joint federal-provincial monitoring program, a new three-year plan announced by Canada and Alberta in early 2012.

The monitoring program recently came under fire from Alberta’s auditor general, Merwan Saher, after the group released its first report that Saher found “lacked clarity and key information and contained inaccuracies.”

A report for the year leading up to March 31, 2013 was released in June, 2014, 15 months after the program’s first year end and a full nine months after it was due. Saher said the delay in the report was “disturbing” and “made the report less relevant.”

In a statement to the Canadian Press, Environment Canada said Galarneau’s research is a part of the government’s commitment to tracking industry impacts.

The government of Canada and Alberta remain committed to ensuring that data from the monitoring activities and the scientific methods used are transparent, supported by necessary quality assurance and made publicly available to allow independent scientific assessments and evaluations,” an Environment Canada spokesperson wrote in an email.

1,069 kilograms of oilsands toxins from tailings released into air each year

The research found 1,069 kilograms of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), oil-derived toxins that are known to cause cancer in animals and humans, are released from tailings directly into the air each year.

According to Galarneau’s research abstract, the most recent emissions reports to Canada’s National Pollutant Release Inventory only totaled 231 kilograms.

These results indicate that tailings ponds may be an important PAH source to the atmosphere that is missing from current inventories in the [oilsands region],” the abstract states.

Pollutant emissions may be key to understanding oilsands’ environmental impacts

In 2012 federal scientists from Environment Canada presented research at a toxicology conference that confirmed contaminants from the oilsands were polluting a much larger area on land than previously thought.

A team led by scientist Jane Kirk found contamination, including PAHs, in lakes as far as 100 kilometres away from Fort McMurray, the centre of oilsands development.

In that presentation senior federal scientist Derek Muir said the contaminated region is larger than anticipated with a ‘legacy’ of chemicals building up in lake sediment. Another federal scientist Joanne Parrott presented research on the toxicity of water from snow melt in the oilsands region. Parrott said larval fish exposed to melted snow from the area did very poorly in the contaminated water.

A report released in early 2014 by researchers at the University of Toronto found that the reported level of PAHs released by bitumen extraction were “inadequate and incomplete.” The study found pollution emissions in the oilsands were likely two to three times higher than industry estimates.  

The new research released by Environment Canada could give some insight into how oilsands contaminants make their way into the surrounding environment.

Galarneau, however, said the new research doesn’t study what happens to the chemicals once they enter the atmosphere or give any indication as to the consequences of the pollution.

We have to consider the ambient measurements and the deposition. The computer modeling simulations that’s needed to put all the pieces together hasn’t been done yet.”

Environmental contamination is a major concern for local communities and First Nations who have suffered elevated rates of cancer in their communities and report strange deformities in local wildlife and fish.

A health study released by the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and the Mikisew Cree in collaboration with the University of Manitoba found high concentrations of PAHs and heavy metals, arsenic, mercury, cadmium and selenium in kidney and liver samples from moose, duck, muskrats and beavers trapped by community members. The pollutants were found to be “positively associated” with oilsands development.

Galarneau said more testing and more sophisticated testing is needed to better understanding her findings.

We would certainly like more information from more facilities’ ponds.”

Image Credit: Hot waste filling tailings pond at Suncor Mining site. Photo by Alex McLean.